Tony Blair likes to tell the story of how the suffragette Pankhurst sisters urged Keir Hardie to fight the 1913 election on a platform of “votes for women, chastity for men and prohibition for all”.
Labour’s first leader replied: “Thank you for your advice – the electoral benefits of which are not immediately discernible.”
An ambitious politician is equally unlikely today to run for office as a champion of European integration.
But an intriguing piece of research published yesterday by the IPPR think tank showed there are areas where the British public want to see closer EU co-operation.
Nearly seven out of 10 (67%) wanted greater co-operation to fight terrorism and international crime, with strong support for joint action to tackle climate change (52%), reduce poverty (51%) and address immigration (45%).
The Conservative Party was once divided between Europhiles such as ex-PM Edward Heath, Ken Clarke and Michael Heseltine and ardent foes of deeper union like former Welsh Secretary John Redwood. Today, the dispute in the party is about whether to pull-out altogether or just to claw back powers.
No aspiring Tory MP would turn up at a selection meeting with an EU flagged draped across his or her shoulders – but presumably there are some men and women of a right-of-centre disposition who don’t want to see the European project collapse in an orgy of burned sheep and shredded euros.
Isn’t there a populist Conservative case for how the powers of the EU could be harnessed to fight terrorism and poverty?
Likewise, where are the Tory MPs who are excited about the chance to create the world’s most competitive marketplace? If the UK’s 62 million citizens are to compete in the global economy for jobs and trade with 192 million Brazilians, 1.2 billion Indians and 1.3bn Chinese, surely being part of a common market of 502 million people would have its advantages?
With the Middle East lurching towards a frightening era of nuclear-charged instability and Russia sinking into authoritarianism, isn’t there a tactical case for greater defence and diplomatic co-operation?
The United States seems set for one of its periodic bouts of isolationism, with both the left and the right tired of foreign wars and irritated that European states are content to depend on US firepower for their protection but reluctant to pay their way. The Americans have failed to broker peace in Israel and the Occupied Territories and their attention is now focused on China’s Pacific ambitions.
When the EU has both an opportunity and a strategic need to defend its members’ interests voters might not punish a politician with a vision for leadership.
A Thursday Column.
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